STARKE, Fla. (AP) - I've seen
flames jet from an inmate's head. I've seen clouds of smoke roil at
the top of the execution chamber at Florida State Prison. I've heard
an inmate complain that he was brutalized by guards looking for a
suitable vein to attach an IV for the deadly cocktail used in lethal
In 19 years on the death beat, I've seen 44 men and two women die
as the state carried out the ultimate punishment for murder.
Some of the doomed were fearful, others stoic. Some were defiant,
others penitent. Most were guilty of heinous crimes. Some dropped
appeals and sought execution. A few were probably innocent.
While many of the details of individual executions are part of a
collective memory, some images are forever seared into my memory:
The cold steel blue eyes of serial killer Ted Bundy. Flames erupting
from the head of Jesse Tafero and flames from around the head piece
of Pedro Medina. Tiny Judias Buenoano, known as the black widow, in
the massive wooden chair - her head shaved bald and coated with gel.
The strange final statement by female serial killer Aileen Wuornos
about "a mother ship" before she was executed by injection. The
large blood stain which formed on the front of Allen "Tiny" Davis'
shirt during the last electrocution in Florida.
When I first witnessed an execution in 1984, I didn't know how I
would react. Would I faint, vomit or cry out? I didn't do any of
those things and felt guilty that I really didn't feel anything
other than depressed.
Forty-five executions later, I still worry. Will I see something
horrific that I will have to try to suppress from my nightmares?
Seeing flames jump from someone's head or blood flow onto someone's
body are not easy things to forget.
During the execution, a reporter is busy working to record every
detail on a yellow pad with pencils provided by the prison system.
There is the inmate's final statement, the time the execution
started, the time the inmate was examined by medical workers and the
pronouncement of death.
In most cases of state-sanctioned death, there is little to see
and observe. With the change from the electric chair to lethal
injection, there is even less to watch.
With the electric chair, the condemned was brought through a
metal door in the back of the room and quickly seated in the chair.
A team quickly tightened straps around the inmate's chest, arms,
waist and legs, attaching an electrode to a freshly shaved right
After giving the inmate a chance to make a final statement, an
electrode was attached to his head and a black leather mask lowered
over his face. The warden would nod to a black-hooded executioner,
who would turn a switch, sending as much as 2,000 volts of power
through the inmate's body.
Usually, after a sudden lurch backward caused by muscles
contracting, the inmate would slump in the chair. Puffs of smoke
would sometimes rise from the electrode attached to the inmate's leg
and then the execution would end.
On two occasions - the May 4, 1990, execution of Tafero and the
March 25, 1997, death of Medina - witnesses had to deal with flames.
During the Tafero execution, flames as high as 3 feet shot from the
top of his head. The process was repeated three times with flames
returning each time. When Medina was put to death, flames shot
around the mask and a cloud of smoke formed at the top of the
execution chamber. Sponges atop the condemned inmates' heads were
blamed for both fiery deaths.
The bloody execution of Davis on July 8, 1999, marked the end of
Florida's electric chair. The blood came from a nose bleed, but soon
grew to a stain on his white shirt about the size of a dinner plate.
Pictures of Davis' bruised bloated body were presented to the
Florida Supreme Court and ended up on the Internet. Florida later
changed its method of execution to lethal injection.
While apparently more humane that electrocution, the results of
lethal injection are the same - the condemned prisoner dies.
The Department of Corrections has a script for lethal injection
that runs six pages, outlining the jobs of the individuals involved.
Preparing an inmate for death by injection is done out of the
view of the media and public. Behind closed doors, intravenous lines
are placed in an inmate's arms. When a suitable vein can't be found,
they can be inserted into a leg or even hands. If necessary, a
surgical cut can be made to insert the needles.
When Bennie Demps was executed on June 7, 2000, he complained he
had been cut in the groin and leg as technicians searched for a
suitable vein. He said he was "butchered," bleeding profusely and in
a lot of pain.
The first sight the 12 media witnesses and 12 official witnesses
have of the condemned in a lethal injection is when a brown curtain
is opened in the execution chamber.
Then, the inmate is already strapped to a gurney, clear plastic
IV lines running through a hole in the wall. A white sheet is pulled
up to the inmate's armpits, covering straps across the inmate's
chest, waist and legs.
The inmate is allowed to give a final statement into a microphone
suspended from the ceiling. Sometimes, the window air conditioning
unit in the witness room makes it impossible to hear.
After the statement, the warden nods to an executioner, who is
watching from behind a mirrored glass. He begins injecting eight
separate needles into the IV line. A doctor watches a heart monitor
hooked up to the condemned inmate.
Although there is not as much to watch when compared to the
electric chair, a lethal injection can be as troubling for
witnesses, who can see an inmate's face as he dies.
Usually, the inmate makes a coughing noise and fights for his
next breath. Then his eyes open and his mouth drops open, as his
face turns ashen.
When the heart monitor displays a flat line, showing the inmate
is dead, a medical technician and doctor examine the inmate's body
and he is pronounced dead.
The witnesses are asked to leave the room and board vans.
Official witnesses are taken to the prison administration building,
while media witnesses return to a former cow pasture across the road
from the prison to file their stories and answer questions from
those who did not go inside.